I bought Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland by Stefan Fatsis over twenty years ago, after I had read the author’s Word Freak. I would not ordinarily buy a book about baseball but I got this one solely on account of the author. While in Las Vegas for the recent Scrabble Players Championship I asked Stefan to sign it, as well as two other books of his that I had brought along. He was happy to oblige and this book brought him many fond memories, especially since it was written 28 years ago.
Wild and Outside tells the story of baseball’s Northern League, which at the time of publication consisted of six teams and was considering expansion to eight. This was an independent league not beholden to the dictates of major league baseball. While I am a fan of major league baseball, I am not a reader of sports books yet I must commend the author for making this a can’t-put-down read. Fatsis provided histories of the players, managers, owners and teams, none of whom I found to be made-for-TV-misfits or quirky. Fatsis made ordinary people interesting. Some players believed they were on the cusp of greatness while others were just happy to be playing for a living. Some believed that they were treated unfairly and never given a fair shot in the majors, while others were in fact former major leaguers. You’d think there would have to be some kind of Bad News Bears quality to the players to make this book interesting. What we have are teams that love to play–for paltry salaries–and loyal fans in cities where the big leagues had passed them by.
The most interesting part of Wild and Outside was the impact the major league strike of 1994-95 had on the Northern League. I would have thought that the NL players would have shown more solidarity with their striking brothers but in reality, some were all too happy to step in and play on a temporary team of scabs.
Attendance was often a problem as some teams struggled to fill the stands while others always had healthy numbers, even those teams that had losing records. All fans had a great attitude about the game and they loved their local team, win or lose.
In the end I got the idea that the Northern League made it a priority to sell the game to the fans while downplaying the corporate side. Player skills were developed and if it took a team a series of losses to do this, then so be it.